Post-COVID Urbanism Discussion

Arlington

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I hope I can link a recent Vox/Weeds podcast that artfully outlined “what changed about cities”

The best insight is that Zoom has diminished the relative value and urgency of “transacting at the nexus” and that cities (NY & DC, Silicon Valley ) that previously had insisted “you must be here to get the best deal* done right” have all lost some of their monopoly power to be “the only place to be”

*best deal == of whatever type the particular nexus promised to be best at.

And this was the economic/production claim that “the city” made as a national/global/regional transaction center—zoom has widened the definition of what it means to be “in” the center—can Red Bank now count (on most days) as close enough to Wall Street to get the “nexus” advantages.

note: the “zoom instead of being at the nexus” is a worker productivity claim, not the personal/consumption claim (that people will devote more of their wealth to live close to long-tail experiences in the arts or culture)

My conclusion would be that the center has lost its centrality in a series of 10% losses:

10% to 20% of “monthly FaceTime” trips won’t happen physically—the center will no longer be physical host for either fewer meetings or fewer participants

10% to 20% of FaceTime trips will happen from farther out in the hinterlands (“from my house on the Cape”).

10% to 20% of what had been “weekday commuting” will be recast as “business travel”
 

Arlington

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Boston, with its labs and hospitals, has a strong portfolio of “must be at the nexus”

Whereas NYC and Silicon Valley were about pure “you gotta be here because I had to be here” —that is just not as plausible as it once was
 

bigpicture7

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Boston, with its labs and hospitals, has a strong portfolio of “must be at the nexus”

Whereas NYC and Silicon Valley were about pure “you gotta be here because I had to be here” —that is just not as plausible as it once was
These are interesting insights and hypotheses. I agree that Boston will benefit from having an outsized proportion of "must be at the nexus" activity compared to other cities (though I would add certain components of Higher Ed & Research to the must-be-at-nexus-list for Boston).

At first glance, most of this is intuitive to me. But I feel like there are categories beyond must-be-at-nexsus and you-gotta-be-here-because-I-had-to-be-here (though I agree with those two and the projected trends). With regard to the latter, I agree that the value of certain "rites of passage" and "prestigiousness of doing things in a particular way because that's how impressive things were done before" will decline as people can prove those things can be done other ways very effectively.

The missing category, in my mind, is what I'll call "very complex, very collaborative" work that, technically and logically can be done without co-location, but, over time, suffers in a sense-able way. I've worked on complex systems as an engineer where experts across disciplines needed to work together on never-done-before things: here, trust and relationships and openness really mattered. If we got too distanced, we started losing trust that everyone was coming from a good place with team-oriented motives. This is very different from doing work that is commoditized or already well-established and modularized (for instance: I have no desire to see my accountant...in that case, please just get it done and let me know when it's done). Whereas, when working on really challenging innovative stuff, it can in fact be so personal. I can recall many times when "let's go grab coffee" has stemmed from feelings of "why the hell is he really making us use that power supply?"

It's hard to put to words, but my gut tells me that really complex/innovative/collaborative work will continue to draw people together.
 
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Arlington

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MIT’s fusion reactor projects are a great example of “must be On the team and in the room” Obviously it is the kind of cross disciplinary cutting edge innovation it happens in small teams in person.

My concern is that media fame around device innnovation tends overstate the employment impacts on a metro area. I am sure Volpe smart transportation work is also kick ass and Has to be done in person. All will be the stuff of song and legend the question is whether it will also be the stuff of an urban economy.
 

bigpicture7

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MIT’s fusion reactor projects are a great example of “must be On the team and in the room” Obviously it is the kind of cross disciplinary cutting edge innovation it happens in small teams in person.

My concern is that media fame around device innnovation tends overstate the employment impacts on a metro area. I am sure Volpe smart transportation work is also kick ass and Has to be done in person. All will be the stuff of song and legend the question is whether it will also be the stuff of an urban economy.
I think you are onto something here. The work that has "media fame" and the actual work needing to get done are two different things. Certain types of work and workers have an outsized media fame relative to their enduring importance, actual headcount and actual future demand. For instance, when Twitter says its workers can work from home, how much does that really matter? Twitter doesn't even have that big of a workforce. Don't get me wrong, I believe some jobs can be done from pretty much anywhere (I'm not arguing against that specifically). However, I do believe we are wasting a lot of technical horsepower (and associated media blathering) right now on market bubble-esque cloud software app and other commoditized or near-commoditized SW work (much of which will end up overseas anyways). Eventually the bill will come due in U.S. society for more high-impact, cutting edge technical work in the areas of energy, transportation, biomedicine, and others. That "very complex, very collaborative" work requires more of an in-person presence. So I think it's a matter of which cities are best positioned to take that on.
 
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maxdatabook

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When I was younger, you either had someone or you didn't. No one wanted to be alone. It was a trope until recently, dying alone. Are internet social networks enough to replace physical relationships, or the need for one? I remember staying up to midnight as young teenages to watch the PBS Nana where it was said there would be a nude scene. There was, 5 seconds of a naked breast (as if I could see it on the low resolution TVs of that day). For most of history, the older you became the more you saw. Today, people see everything the moment they look at a computer screen, no matter what the age. This is a problem I have with my kids. I see a timeline; they don't. It's all immediate. Architecturally, all steel, glass, plastic and bare. Perhaps that is the same for every generation.

Can cities thrive in the future, disconnected from history, from tradition? I can see it if social networks and drugs are enough for humans. I come back to this poem by Yates, over and over again. Written at a similar time in history when technology had obliterated the old lifestyle. If the poem remains true, we will see violence, war and famine as bad as any in history. Whether cities or thrive or not will be hardly worth thinking about.

Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
 

jklo

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With most of the restrictions in the state being lifted on May 29th we'll find out pretty quickly how eager employers are to bring employees back into the office.
 

jklo

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stefal

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Easy: move to the suburbs if you don't want people eating close to where you live.

“I’ve seen a lot of changes in the North End, and not for the better,” said long-time resident Gina Lupo. “I can’t even go on the weekends and walk around my neighborhood. It’s just too many people on the sidewalks, and I can’t even cross the street because I’m gonna get run over by the people driving in the street too fast.”
Seems like a simple solution if you're complaining about cramped sidewalks and unsafe cars: on the list of places that shouldn't have cars, the North End is up there - extend outdoor dining into the street and only permit emergency vehicles and deliveries.
 

KentXie

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When I was younger, you either had someone or you didn't. No one wanted to be alone. It was a trope until recently, dying alone. Are internet social networks enough to replace physical relationships, or the need for one? I remember staying up to midnight as young teenages to watch the PBS Nana where it was said there would be a nude scene. There was, 5 seconds of a naked breast (as if I could see it on the low resolution TVs of that day). For most of history, the older you became the more you saw. Today, people see everything the moment they look at a computer screen, no matter what the age. This is a problem I have with my kids. I see a timeline; they don't. It's all immediate. Architecturally, all steel, glass, plastic and bare. Perhaps that is the same for every generation.
I'm going to argue that this is the wrong perspective. WFH allows people to actually spend more time with their love ones because you get back the time you would have spent on commute which for some can be around 1 hr each way (and thus a total of 10 hours wasted each week). Furthermore, given how companies generally discourage having intimate relationships with co-workers, chances are, you and your spouse do not work at the same company or in the same place. The ability to WFH thus allows you to work in the same location as your spouse. If anything, remote working has increased the face time you get with your spouses.
 

bigpicture7

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I'm going to argue that this is the wrong perspective. WFH allows people to actually spend more time with their love ones because you get back the time you would have spent on commute which for some can be around 1 hr each way (and thus a total of 10 hours wasted each week). Furthermore, given how companies generally discourage having intimate relationships with co-workers, chances are, you and your spouse do not work at the same company or in the same place. The ability to WFH thus allows you to work in the same location as your spouse. If anything, remote working has increased the face time you get with your spouses.
And I am going to argue that this perspective misses a bigger point. Why are we creating a society where marriage/kids necessarily corresponds with living far from work (i.e., suburban family/parenting values), where good schools can only exist in suburbs, and desirable family homes can only exist in suburbs. Density and urbanity is all about co-locating all of those things. Collaborate with colleagues at the office one day, work from your dining room table the next, get up and walk into the office if a tricky discussion needs to happen with colleagues...swing by school to pick up the kid on the way home. I know people will point to a million reasons why this isn't happening equitably for everyone yet, but that doesn't mean it isn't a desirable aspiration.
 

KentXie

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And I am going to argue that this perspective misses a bigger point. Why are we creating a society where marriage/kids necessarily corresponds with living far from work (i.e., suburban family/parenting values), where good schools can only exist in suburbs, and desirable family homes can only exist in suburbs. Density and urbanity is all about co-locating all of those things. Collaborate with colleagues at the office one day, work from your dining room table the next, get up and walk into the office if a tricky discussion needs to happen with colleagues...swing by school to pick up the kid on the way home. I know people will point to a million reasons why this isn't happening equitably for everyone yet, but that doesn't mean it isn't a desirable aspiration.
It's a desirable aspiration. My point is that WFH allows more interactions with your love ones due to the additional flexibility is all
 

maxdatabook

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It's a desirable aspiration. My point is that WFH allows more interactions with your love ones due to the additional flexibility is all
I've essentially worked from home much of my life, married with 3 girls (now grown). You're right, I didn't take any jobs where many hours were consumed with commuting and all the wasted office time that goes with it. That said, I don't believe most people prefer that lifestyle.
 

bigpicture7

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I'm in a prediction-making mood this monday morning, and since this is a thread outside of the development area that barely anyone reads, I'm going to plunk down a couple of hypotheses. Take em' or leave em'

Hypothesis 1: Covid will inevitably lead to a strengthening of urbanism (relative to the suburbs), rather than the opposite.
Hypothesis 1a: If offices are going to be more like "hubs," even if many employees aren't going to go there every day, it makes zero sense to locate them in a non-hub-like location (i.e., the suburbs). Suburbs are poorly located and poorly connected; even if people go in to the office rarely, it still makes no sense to locate offices there. Not only will companies who were already based in cities choose to stay there (though they may decrease square footage), many more companies will choose to actually relocate their downsized offices into cities. Suburban-based offices will no longer make much sense, since no individual suburb/environs can house many people and people have a decreased tolerance for inconvenient commutes (even if only ~2 days/wk); therefore, offices will instead to converge into centralized locations.​
Hypothesis 1b: City residential life will thrive, even more so than pre-Covid. More people can live where they want now, and a lot of those people will choose cities. A subset of young people worked in suburban office park campuses, but most of them didn't really want to be there - young people tend to crave cities. So now that there's more flexibility, those young individuals will converge where most of their friends are: cities. If one only needs to commute a couple days a week, more of such young people will choose a reverse commute so they can spend more time in the city. Further, many retiring baby boomers who don't want the big house and yard will also move into cities where maintenance-free living and services/amenities are plentiful.​
Hypothesis 2: the main outflow from cities will be people in their early 30s once they start families. Unfortunately and sadly, these folks don't trust city school systems. Also, these early 30-somethings crave being able to show their families/extended families that they've "made it," which involves having a big house and yard to show off and a big enough dining room table to be able to host holidays (gotta pick up the torch from mom and dad, so everyone feels validated). These strong social forces will still draw many 30-somethings out of cities (where they will then complain that their companies don't do enough to support them), but it will not be a net-negative outflow overall, as the 20-somethings and boomers will produce a larger positive inflow. Also, as today's 20-somethings age with an urban orientation and with parents who are now urban, fewer 30-somethings will flee the city in 10+ years from now.

My prediction is that good news lies ahead for cities.
 
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